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A Slight Error

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

It was the Scottish poet Robert Burns who reminded us that the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry. Along these lines, the story of T. P. Burnett might prove instructive. Burnett was a candidate for Congress in the Territory of Wisconsin in the spring of 1838. Burnett had no choice but lay careful plans.

The territory of Wisconsin had been formed from a portion of the territory of Michigan in 1836 and extended all the way to the Missouri River. The sparsely populated section west of the Mississippi contained only two counties, Des Moines and Dubuque.

It was in this western region that Burnett decided his chance of votes was best. The westerners had felt slighted by the decision of the Territorial Legislature to meet in Burlington, east of the Mississippi, rather than at Bellevue on the West Bank. They welcomed the candidate’s attention.

Burnett planned carefully. He chose Bellevue in newly formed Jackson County as his first stop. He scheduled his campaign to coincide with the opening session of court in the new county to make sure of a large audience. He chose an idyllic location for his speech—a shaded grove overlooking the Mississippi.

Affairs went even better than Burnett had hoped. The Court adjourned to hear him. The audience was attentive, his promises effective. No one doubted that he had the election in hand.

As it turned out, the candidate had misjudged one small detail. He had underestimated the slight the west bankers felt at being ignored by the legislature. As Burnett was concluding his talk, a steamboat pulled up to the Bellevue landing. It brought news—the petition of the west bankers to break away from Wisconsin had been granted. T.P. Burnett was now speaking in the brand-new territory of Iowa.

To his credit, Burnett took the news gracefully. He ended his speech. “Well, gentlemen,” he told the crowd, “it is not necessary to hold your attention any longer, I will cross over to my own side of the river.”

Burnett of course was not the last campaigner to make such a mistake. Even today, presidential candidates crossing the country occasionally forget they are in Iowa.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.